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“Three years ago social media was new and shiny. It was newsworthy just to be a small business using Twitter, or to have a well-written corporate blog.

Now you’re the odd man out if you don’t have a Twitter account. It’s no longer newsworthy to just use social media – you need to have a creative twist that sets you apart.

If your social media efforts are stalled, here’s some advice on how to take them to the next level:

Decide what you actually want from social media.

Most people sign up for Twitter or start a blog because they’ve heard it’s a great way to get customers, or their 17-year-old neighbour tells them they should.

Just like every other area of your business, you should have a strategy before you start creating accounts on every social media site-du-jour. Are you trying to increase your customer base? Are you looking to keep your existing customer base more informed? Or are you simply hoping to use social media as a customer service tool?

Know why you’re getting into it so you know what you want to get out of it. Social media without a purpose is like posting a billboard with your logo but no brand message or call to action – it might get your name out there, but it won’t drive any positive change.

Set-it-and-forget-it is not a strategy.

You can’t spend a week designing your social media profiles and then leave them alone for months. Popular Twitter personality Scott Stratten says starting a Twitter account and abandoning it is akin to walking into a networking event, saying hello, and then turning around and walking out.

You need to spend time conversing with people, sharing relevant content, and answering questions. Don’t be the company that replies to a question on Twitter a week after it’s asked – by then it’s too late. Currency is the most important part of social media, so take a few minutes to check your accounts every morning and find a way to make a connection with someone.

You have a great story, and a personality. Don’t bury them.

One of the best parts of being an entrepreneur is the fact that you have a great story to tell. If you started your bakery because you couldn’t get a good cupcake in town to save your life, share that online. Tell your story on your blog, on Facebook, or anywhere else that your customers hang out.

And don’t be afraid to inject humour and creativity into your online personality – just because you’re behind a computer doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. People resonate most with companies that have personality, so think about how you can let yours shine through.

Don’t be everywhere.

Often the first inclination when using social media is to be everywhere. But you’ll quickly realize that unless your demographic is college students or musicians, Digg and MySpace aren’t really for you. Research who is using each platform, and decide where your efforts should be directed. Pick three places to focus your effort – anything more than that and you won’t be able to do an effective job of building community.

Find a way to streamline your efforts.

Do you have a blog? Share that content on Twitter. Have a Google Reader full of bloggers or journalists in your industry? Scour that list for articles you can put in your e-mail newsletter. Attending a networking event? Take photos or conduct interviews with attendees to upload to your Facebook page or YouTube channel.

The key is to tie your efforts together so you’re not re-creating the wheel – every entrepreneur is busy, so the less time you can spend creating and sharing content the better.

Measure and test everything.

Every entrepreneur has the same question: what’s the return on investment in social media? It’s actually quite easy to measure.

Install Google Analytics on your website and blog to find out where visitors are coming from, and devote your time to your highest traffic sources. Use Bit.ly to measure clicks on your links. Use Facebook Insights to analyze activity on your Facebook page over time.

Use promotion-builders such as Pinpoint Social to offer discounts to your customers through social media, and measure redemption rates. Test e-mail newsletter subject lines and the time of day you send things out. The more you test, the more you realize what’s working and what’s not, and you can spend your time accordingly.

Social media is just one part of your marketing program, but it’s one that is inexpensive and can provide a huge return on a small investment of time and money. But in 2011, if you’re not using social media tools the right way you won’t stand out – and worse, your competitors will overshadow you online.

Spend the time to do it right, or hire someone who can do it in-house. You’ll improve your online presence – and ultimately your bottom line.”

Erin Bury – Globe and Mail – May 4th, 2011

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